Sex Trafficking via Facebook Sets Off a Lawyer’s Novel Crusade

December 16, 2019

HOUSTON — Tech has led to a lot of trouble lately: hate speech, financial scams, undermined elections. Yet tech companies have largely avoided legal consequences, thanks to a landmark 1996 law that protects them from lawsuits.

Now that federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has a new threat: Annie McAdams, a personal-injury lawyer in Houston.

Ms. McAdams is waging a legal assault against Facebook and other tech companies, accusing them of facilitating the sex trafficking of minors. In a series of lawsuits in California, Georgia, Missouri and Texas, she is using a novel argument to challenge the 1996 law, and finding some early success. This year, a Texas judge has repeatedly denied Facebook’s motions to dismiss her lawsuits.

Section 230 states that internet companies are not liable for what their users post. Ms. McAdams argues that, in the case of pimps using Facebook and Instagram to lure children into prostitution, separate laws require Facebook to warn users of that risk and do more to prevent it.

“If you sell a lawn mower and the blade flies off and chops someone in the leg, you have the responsibility to fix it and warn people,” she said. “Nowhere else has an industry been afforded this luxury of protection from being held accountable for anything that they’ve caused.”

Ms. McAdams’s lawsuits are part of a broader, yearslong effort to use the courts to upend how the 23-year-old law governs the internet.

While Section 230 is increasingly debated in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, legislation is not expected to significantly weaken the law anytime soon. Instead, lawyers are pushing ahead with federal and state lawsuits to challenge its protection of internet companies. After years of court rulings that strengthened the law, cracks have recently begun to show.

In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that Section 230 didn’t protect a modeling website that two men used to lure women they drugged and sexually assaulted, because the site’s owners knew of the threat and failed to warn the women.

To read the full story by Jack Nicas on The New York Times: Click Here


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